Are we welcome right now?

Academics speak out against Trump’s ban on Muslims

Cartoon by Emanuele Del Rosso/@EmaDelRosso

A federal judge has halted America’s sudden travel ban but President Trump is preparing a counterattack. "It hurts to see people like me being excluded."

When Amin Moradi, a PhD student from Iran, heard about the travel ban to prevent people from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen entering the United States, he was gutted. "In March, there’s a major conference of the American Physical Society in New Orleans and I wouldn’t be able to go. And it’s not just me, either. Friends of mine work for American institutes, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They went to Iran to celebrate New Year and got stuck there, even though they have work permits."

However, POTUS Donald Trump’s executive order was blocked by a federal judge. For now, visitors and migrants with visas for the United States are allowed to travel to America. But the question is, for how long? Because, immediately after the decision, the president posted a message on Twitter: "The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!"

"We have the impression that none of our students or staff have been acutely affected", says Caroline van Overbeeke, Leiden University’s spokesman. But anyone hit by the ban can count on the university’s help.

"This ban is not just detrimental to the education of the thousands of students and researchers from those countries", remarks Moradi. "It’s obstructing scientific progress too."

Zohreh Zahedi, a fellow Iranian who works for the Centre for Science and Technology, is concentrating on improving methods for judging scientific publications. She was "shocked" by the new rules. She had planned a visit to the American Library of Congress, but she might have to cancel the trip now. "It’s a pity I’m not welcome."

"I’m a British citizen, it’s my only nationality" explains Philosophy lecturer Ahab (last name removed on request). "When the British Foreign Secretary announced that the ban did not apply to British nationals, the American embassy in London contradicted his statement. I know of at least one case – an Iraqi who was not allowed into Michigan, despite having a valid visa. To be honest, I simply wouldn’t risk it, unless the American embassy tells me directly that I wouldn’t be turned back at the border. Some friends of mine rang the embassy to ask the exact details, but said they were more confused afterwards than they were before they spoke with them. The staff there apparently didn’t know who the migration ban applied to either.

Ahab continues: "I was born in Iraq, and go back frequently; I’m Muslim and I lecture on Islam. Several authorities have already been grateful for my expertise and despite that, I’m treated like a threat. I was invited to a conference in New York in March, but perhaps I won’t be able to go now. I could set up a video connection, but that only addresses one aspect of my not being there. Actually meeting people, building networks, exchanging ideas – that’s how civilisation progresses. The fact that they’re now preventing me from sharing my academic knowledge is mind-boggling and insane."

The philosopher does not think that the ban is an one-off incident. "The thing that’s worrying me most is not the fact that I can’t go to America. In the earliest stages of the Endlösung, in which violence was used on a massive scale, Jews were dehumanised and their rights were restricted for a long time before it actually started. It’s not just the United States; we can see something similar going on in Europe too: racism is on the rise – in the media and at university. I’ve even heard racist echoes among professors."

Archaeologist Sada Mire fled the civil war in Somalia as a child, arriving in Sweden without her parents. "I’m a Swedish national, so I should not be effected by the ban, technically. However, I wonder if it would be smooth, as I am still a Somali. The last time I was in America was because I had been invited to give a speech at Princeton. It hurts to see people like me, with a refugee background, being attacked and excluded."

"You try to do your bit to make the world a better place and Trump classifies you as a bad guy", says Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, a senior university lecturer of Persian Literature.

He was born in Iran but has a Dutch passport. "I know Iranians in America who daren’t leave the country in case they can’t get back. I have relatives with green cards who are now in Iran and want to travel to the States. They had already booked the tickets. And apart from the question as to whether they’ll be allowed in, people are simply scared."

Seyed-Gohrab will never forget his first trip to America. "I was carted off as soon as I landed. I was travelling with my professor. He couldn’t find me anywhere – it was very awkward. I’ve had trouble with customs every time I visit America. Of course, my name and place of birth, Teheran, are red flags to them so they dragged me off somewhere and interrogated me for an hour and a half in a tiny office. I prefer not to think about it …

"They wanted to know why I was in the Netherlands and whether I still visited Iran. I had to wait with other ‘coloured’ people; it’s horrible to be picked out like that."

Ahab adds: "At the moment, there’s a movement, led by colleagues – not from Leiden, by the way, to boycott collaboration with the United States. It’s still at an embryonic stage; so far, it’s mainly a collection of responses and replies to the recent developments. You see, researchers are seriously worried. A message has to be sent. Because what’s happening now will affect the entire academic world."

BB, VB & MvW

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‘This goes against everything we stand for’

Last week, academic organisations spoke out en masse against the travel restrictions. As Mare went to press, the petition "NoToImmigrationBan.com" had been signed by some 30,000 American academics, including more than sixty Nobel Laureates.

"The proposed EO limits collaborations with researchers from these nations. We strongly believe the immediate and long term consequences of this EO do not serve our national interests", the petition states.

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands, an umbrella organisation of which Leiden University is a member, has denounced closing the borders: "Academics who work in the Netherlands are also confronted by considerable restrictions in maintaining their academic contacts. After all, some of their academic contacts are now restricted in their mobility, which means they may not be able to attend conferences or seminars."

Leiden University College in The Hague appealed to students and staff – at least, to "those among you who are not attending the certificate award ceremony" – to join the protest march on Malieveld in The Hague last Wednesday. Initiator and public administration expert Caspar van den Berg from the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs explained: "What’s happening in America goes against everything we, as a university, stand for. We can choose to do nothing and let it go, or we can make a stand as scientists."

He stresses that the university itself did not take part, although The Hague’s communications department supplied the protest signs ("ACADEMICS AGAINST BIGOTRY SINCE 1575") for anyone who wanted them.

"The American policy of intolerance and alternative facts also impairs academic values. Leiden University has a tradition of fighting oppression, which can be traced back, through Cleveringa, to its founding father. When you are part of Leiden’s academic community, you should realise that we achieved a lot here. I feel obliged to make myself heard."

Another petition is also gaining ground. It was started by astronomer Freeke van de Voort, who got her PhD in Leiden. Supporters pledge that they ‘will not attend conferences in the US until their colleagues can.’ The pledge has over 600 supporters, five from Leiden University.

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